Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dawkins and Atheism

I'll soon travel to Eastern Europe for a Zen confab in Warsaw. Zen is big in Poland. Go figure; maybe it has something to do with suffering, "the mother of all Buddhas." Afterwards, I'll tour Krakow, Prague, and Budapest, before hitting Amsterdam (of course) on the way home.

(My apocalyptic friends have warned me of predictions of world-wide collapse by the end of this month. Disturbingly, their emails arrived weeks before the current Wall Street chaos. If they're right, at least I'll be in Amsterdam on Sept 30, which will expand my options for cushioning the end-of-civilization blues.)

While away, I likely won't be blogging till October (if we live). Before the vacation, I wanted to share some online sites that I've been enjoying lately.

Richard Dawkins gained notoriety as the author The Selfish Gene, which has been called the best book of popularizing scientific ideas to the general public. I haven't read it yet, but I've developed a fondness for Dawkins after seeing him on TV and the net. He frequently lectures, riding the success of his more recent book, The God Delusion. I've been prowling Dawkins' site, which is billed as a "Clear-Thinking Oasis." Indeed, his discussion boards seem unusually civil and reasonable.

I don't share Dawkins' passion for atheism. I'd say: if we make an idea of God, we then can choose either to be Theists (aka Believers) or Atheists. But why make an idea of God one way or the other? If we don't make God, then the sky is blue, the grass is green, sugar is sweet, and a quarter is 25 cents.

I'm not sure I agree with Dawkins that Atheists must "come out" to resist the great threat posed by Believers. We all know about the horrors that religion has brought the planet over the centuries... but balancing that out is the fact that Believers in general are so much more charitable that non-believers. The power of religious extremism in America may well be exaggerated (and used by the Left as a straw man). Of course there are some extremists, but far more often, the people who tell pollsters that they're religious are likely to follow religion when it's convenient, but will ultimately follow reason in living their lives. (How many Catholics really eschew birth control?)

Nonetheless, I find Dawkins a wonderful speaker with great humor. His arguments against "God" can be stunning in their elegance. See for example this page, with clips from his appearance earlier this year in Berkeley. In the "Part 1" video, around 3 minutes in, Dawkins cleverly mocks the tendency to "suck up" to God. "You cannot have it both ways. Either God is simple, in which case he's not worth worshipping, or he's complex, in which case he doesn't exist." (The entire Q&A and the lecture itself are available online, and I look forward to watching the rest of it.)

The quote above reflects one of my favorite arguments from Dawkins. He says that you can only explain the complex in terms of the simple. The "God" that religions speak of is necessarily more complex than creation itself. "It is an utterly preposterous idea that the God that not only creates the universe -- which you'd think would be something you'd need to have a fairly good knowledge of physics and mathematics in order to do -- not only does that, but listens to the prayers of every one of 6 billion people simultaneously (such bandwidth!), forgives their sins, knows when they're thinking evil thoughts, worries about their sexual proclivities... how could anyone suggest that such a being, who's capable of doing all the things attributed to him, could possibly be simple?"

OK, that quote's a bit over the top, but the basic point is beautiful. Religious people say that existence requires an explanation, but the pseudo-explanation they offer relies on a complex God. This accomplishes nothing. Darwin, on the other hand, has the great virtue of explaining the complexities of the world as emerging from the simpler process of natural selection.

From the Dawkins site, I somehow surfed to "Unreasonable Faith," a blog written by Daniel Florien, a passionate evangelical Christian for over a decade, who has now become an unbeliever and skeptic. Daniel's thoughts on Dawkins are covered in the blog he posted today, "The futility of invoking a designer."

Daniel writes that we put God in the gaps of our knowledge of the natural processes that make sense of our world. As our knowledge grows, God is squished into tighter gaps. He seems to think that ultimately there'll be no gaps left. I don't share that view. What am I? Why am I alive? Why is there something rather than nothing? I can't imagine scientific knowledge answering those questions any moreso than religion. We'll always be left with some choices that come down to either holding a belief, or facing the big Don't Know.

I'm looking forward to reading more of "Unreasonable Faith," as it's unusual to have someone who was so deeply into the world of Believers, and can now discuss that world coherently. It's like, I dunno, falling into quicksand and living to tell the tale.

Finally, the Dawkins site also introduced me to Derren Brown, an incredible hypnotist, magician, showman, and believer-turned-skeptic. I've been watching Brown's online videos with fascination. I'll write a little about him in my next blog posting, which maybe I can squeeze in before departing for Warsaw.


Aric said...

A nice post. I also am a little turned off by Dawkin's 'militant atheism,' but find his scientific discussions to be accessible, ego-free, and basically correct. I have read the selfish gene (the only Dawkins book I have read). It was a great book, but since I had already reached the the main conclusion of the book on my own (that the basic element of evolution is the gene, not the individual) there was a lot of content that was unhelpful to me. An interesting fact I picked out was that during meiosis, each chromosome in a pair splits at a random location and join up to form a single new chromosome which is passed to the egg or sperm. I always thought that one of the two chromosomes was chosen whole. The part about game theory was good too. At one point in the book Dawkin's said that the book he's most proud of is 'The Extended Phenotype,' so you may want to consider that book instead if you're only going to read one.

Stuart said...

Thanks, aric. I particularly appreciate how you stated the main conclusion of The Selfish Gene: "that the basic element of evolution is the gene, not the individual." I don't know if you're directly quoting Dawkins, but in any case, I like the simplicity of the assertion.

I expect this conclusion will keep my mind boggled for quite some time. The search for the basic element of evolution is something like the search for the fundamental particle of matter, no? We keep looking for the most basic particle (to the point of building 17-mile super-colliders), but we can't seem to get to the end of it.

What exactly is "matter" anyway? And what exactly is an "individual"? It really returns me to Don't Know, like I say, I still feel boggled.

I also like how Kurzweil talked of DNA as an information-storage device. So the "basic element" becomes information, rather than a being or thing. In a slow and crude way, the gene passes on the information about what qualities have favored survival over vast time. The information is de-centralized, and gets updated (painfully slowly) with each generation.

Samuel Skinner said...

Believers give more than atheists? Ever heard that "correlation does not prove causation"?

As for the power of the religious right in the US...

The fact of the matter is that the religious right is estimated to be about a quarter of the population. That is ALOT of people.

As for "what is the individual" I believe we DO have an answer to that... what? Ask a neuroscientist!

Aric said...

If you are intrigued by the question of the basic unit of evolution then The Selfish Gene is for you. I'm not directly quoting him, but that statement is the central theme of the book, and he looks at it from many angles. I don't know the history or evolutionary theory, but it seems that at the time the book was written the 'basic unit' was still in dispute and today Dawkins' idea seems to be mainstream.

Dawkins discusses what he means by 'gene' in this context, and comes to the conclusion that it cannot be precisely defined, but it's larger than a single base pair and is smaller than a chromosome (he is more precise than that).

I never thought to compare this to fundamental physical particles. It's interesting but I find the analogy doesn't hold. In evolution, or anything short of a nuclear reaction, the elements do not change, so they cannot be it. The smallest possible units must then be molecules, and in some ways they were. Dawkins discusses this, imagining the period before life, 'the first replicators.' His description makes a lot of sense and seems to be exactly what this recent research is probing: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/dn14726-did-evolution-come-before-life.html?

DNA certainly is information, and probably matter as well. I have read that information may in fact be more fundamental than matter/energy. Information theory and this application of it is unfortunately something I know very little about. The thing about information in DNA is that it's expression is highly dependent on the environment. I'm not sure how scientists in the field view the gene/information comparison.

Stuart said...

Samuel Skinner said...
The fact of the matter is that the religious right is estimated to be about a quarter of the population.

From today's New York Times (Op-Ed title "Another Country"):

"Just three years ago, a majority of those we surveyed said that 'there are absolute standards of right and wrong that apply to everyone in almost every situation.' Today, however, respondents by a narrow margin say they believe that 'everyone has to decide for themselves what is right and wrong in particular situations.'"

Steven Sashen said...

I wish I could remember where I saw it -- probably in something written by Sam Harris -- but my memory is that a study showed "Believers" were LESS charitable than non-believers.

Other studies showed that Believers were also more likely to get divorced, have children out of wedlock, beat their wives and demonstrate intolerance.

But, like you said, not all Catholics eschew birth control... and not all who claim to live by the bible follow it's commandments (let alone its suggestions).

Doug said...

I don't pay much attention to Dawkins since he took up the provocateur robe. I tend to get him confused with Christopher Hitchens, another Atheist rabble-rouser, which seems unfortunate if his scientific prowess is as good as advertised. The subject matter does bring to mind a somewhat interesting debate that Hitchens had with Al Sharpton.

Personally I find arguments against the existence God as frail and unconvincing as those for him. Trying to deduce the existence or non-existence of God is about as fruitless (and pointless) an endeavor as trying to reason your way to Bhuddist enlightenment. Ultimately, until you've met him face-to-face, God's existence is a matter of faith.

Stewart Asked:How many Catholics really eschew birth control?

When in doubt, ask Monty Python!

Stuart said...

Steven Sashen said...
I wish I could remember where I saw it -- probably in something written by Sam Harris -- but my memory is that a study showed "Believers" were LESS charitable than non-believers.

Great to hear from you Steven. I haven't seen this study. Studies I've seen show that charitable giving is most strongly correlated with membership in a religious group (which in turn is correlated with political conservatism, FWIW).

Anecdotally, during e.g. Katrina, I saw numerous religious leaders (even the worst religious leaders) encouraging their flocks to make personal sacrifices so they could send money etc to relief efforts. Mormons did great work in offering housing etc to displaced victims of the storm. Meanwhile, Lefties in Berkeley seemed most concerned about how the crisis could support their political views.

And of course it only makes sense that when people believe that God will give them a heavenly reward for being charitable (or hellish punishment for selfishness), it'll be a strong motivator.

I don't have faith that humanity, or any individual, necessarily needs to be entirely driven by doubt/rationality or belief. A society with a majority of believers and a minority of scientists may survive the best.

These thoughts, and everyone who's commented here, have led me to ponder "God vs Atheism" further in a new post today; please see the first post for October, "Atheism, Science, and Zen."